2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction
WHAT REVIEWERS ARE SAYING
"Historian Kali Nicole Gross digs up the jaw-dropping case of Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso. Hollywood folks, if you're reading this, get the script ready for Viola Davis or Lynn Whitfield. This unsettling story of Tabbs, a married, working-class Black woman, who carries on a torrid affair, ends in a gruesome murder that rivals Lizzie Borden's legend."—Essence Magazine
"Gross examines the intersections of race and gender in 19th-century Philadelphia in this dynamic and powerfully rendered account of the 1887 trial of Hannah Mary Tabbs...Gross builds suspense through descriptions of gruesome crime scene and details of witness testimonies, all the while filling the reader in on the intricate racial politics surrounding the case...Gross's in-depth accounts of the police brutality, forced confessions, and science-based forensics involved in the case feel surprisingly modern."—Publishers Weekly
"Gross delivers a narrative that informs the reader of the cultural mindset of the late 1880's. She explains that existing racial, gender and age presumptions of the time, as well as its law enforcement and judicial system leanings. Best of all the author produces a thought-provoking story."—Booksie
"Gross provides disturbing insight into the late 19th century, including the treatment and depiction of African Americans, issues of domestic violence, and the textured currents of race relations, while also providing a compelling story told through thoughtful and skilled narration."—Library Journal
"It's the type of tale you don't often hear during Black History Month: the biography of an antiheroine who made her way in the world through violence, deception, and adultery. It's also a true-crime story told nearly 130 years after the fact - culminating in the century-late exoneration of a man who, Gross argues, was framed for murder...In uncovering the story, [Gross] shed light on the tense race relations of the time: Tabbs' vulnerable place under the law as a black woman, and Wilson's still-more-tenuous status as a light-skinned interracial man."—Philadelphia Inquirer
"Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso is an engrossing whodunit and a gripping read with a suitably ambiguous ending that is not easy to forget."—New York Journal of Books
"In following this specific, enthralling case from a time after the Civil War and before current tensions between police departments and communities of color, Gross connects the criminal justice system of the Reconstruction era with both its roots and where it ended up. Academic but accessible, this smart story is an absolute page-turner."—BUST Magazine
"Gross explores the life and crimes of this fascinating woman. Gross details this murder and dismemberment resulting from a love triangle gone wrong, and explores the lives of blacks and mulattoes in post-Reconstruction Philadelphia."—QRB: The Black Book Review
"Using this 1887 murder of a mixed race victim as a starting point, Kali Nicole Gross explores America's complicated history with race, sex and violence. Gross meticulously dissected the detective and trial notes to recount the story of a love triangle gone terribly wrong, with race and the aftermath of slavery playing a central role."—Metro
"In prose that demonstrates careful research and offers a realistic reconstruction of the crime, Gross comments on social standards for morality and relationships between races and genders. The case of the disembodied torso is not only a sensational piece of true crime, but an opportunity to reflect on these continuing complexities."—Shelf Awareness
"A sordid murder reveals beliefs about race, sex, and justice in post-Civil War Philadelphia. Historian Gross draws on police and prison records, witness testimony, newspapers, and other archival sources to produce a thorough, absorbing examination of the crime, its context, and the two people tried."—Kirkus Reviews
“This is a disturbing book, not only because the story swirls around a most gruesome murder, or because Hannah Mary Tabbs executed her crime with cold-blooded resolve and cinematic flair, or because its spellbinding narrative will leave you breathless at times. Rather, this is a disturbing book because Kali N. Gross disturbs all of our inherited categories, proving once again that woman, man, black, white, agency, evidence, truth, even justice, are too small for the historical subjects whose lives we wish to know. This is why Kali N. Gross is one of the most original and imaginative historians of her generation.”—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Shortly after a dismembered torso was discovered by a pond outside Philadelphia in 1887, investigators homed in on two suspects: Hannah Mary Tabbs, a married, working-class, black woman, and George Wilson, a former neighbor whom Tabbs implicated after her arrest.
As details surrounding the shocking case emerged, both the crime and ensuing trial--which spanned several months--were featured in the national press. The trial brought otherwise taboo subjects such as illicit sex, adultery, and domestic violence in the black community to public attention. At the same time, the mixed race of the victim and one of his assailants exacerbated anxieties over the purity of whiteness in the post-Reconstruction era.
In Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, historian Kali Nicole Gross uses detectives' notes, trial and prison records, local newspapers, and other archival documents to reconstruct this ghastly whodunit crime in all its scandalous detail. In doing so, she gives the crime context by analyzing it against broader evidence of police treatment of black suspects and violence within the black community.
A fascinating work of historical recreation, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso is sure to captivate anyone interested in true crime, adulterous love triangles gone wrong, and the racially volatile world of post-Reconstruction Philadelphia.
More From Reviewers:
“Kali Gross is one of the smartest historians around these days. And she’s the most uncompromising in her commitment to discovering and telling true stories about fierce and fascinating lives—stories that illuminate the flaws running right through the rock of American history. You’ll discover more than just the identity of the disembodied torso in the tale Gross spins about Hannah Mary Tabbs—but you’ll discover that, too.”—Edward E. Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
“Kali Gross has written a riveting narrative of the crimes of an ordinary but notorious woman in late nineteenth-century urban America. She does not flinch from the harsh truths her subject forces her to face. She sketches a portrait with the complexity and sensitivity it deserves. The book bristles with lessons for understanding vulnerable communities and their engagement with the criminal justice system today.”—Tera Hunter, author of To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War